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Repetition as a Rhetorical Device: Effect & Examples

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

You must, must, must check out this lesson! Repetition, used in text or even speech, helps us understand the importance of what an author is trying to say. This lesson will examine repetition as a rhetorical device.

One Fish, Two Fish

We probably all remember the catchy writing style of beloved children's book author Dr. Seuss. He was famous for writing The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and the imaginative One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Consider this excerpt from the latter:

'One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish,

Black fish, Blue fish, Old fish, New fish.

This one has a little car.

This one has a little star.

Say! What a lot of fish there are.'

Hey, it's fun, it's fanciful and it rhymes! What's not to love? Not only is this passage easy for beginning readers to get through (and perhaps even memorize), but the use of repetition is employed as a rhetorical device. Seuss' book about fish isn't the only one that makes use of repetition. Consider this excerpt from The Cat in the Hat:

'Now look what you did!'

Said the fish to the cat.

'Now look at this house!'

Or, this one from Green Eggs and Ham:

'I do not like them in a box.

I do not like them with a fox.

I will not eat them in a house.

I do not like them with a mouse.

I do not like them here or there.

I do not like them ANYWHERE!'

This type of word play may seem silly or childish, but think about how many of these repeated phrases you can recall from your childhood without opening a single book. The beauty of using repetition, or repeating certain words or phrases in a work, is that it not only helps you remember those key passages, but it can drive an important concept or message home by adding impact or attention. Using repetition as a rhetorical device is simply the author's way of using key words or phrases to command attention or to say to the reader, 'Hey, pay attention!' It may also be used to convey or evoke certain emotions.

Of course, it's never quite that simple, right? Repetition, like many other literary devices, comes in all different styles. Let's look at a few of these.

Types of Repetition

Here's where things get a little less repetitive and a little more wordy. There are different types of repetition that can be used in text. For example, authors may repeat a particular word at the start of a phrase, at the end of the phrase or even in the middle. The different types of repetition all have names - long, difficult-to-spell names from the Greeks. Here are some examples:

  • Mesodiplosis: When a word repeats in the middle of a phrase

Example: 'We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.' (From The Holy Bible, 2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

  • Epizeuxis or palilogia: When a word or phrase is repeated multiple times in immediate succession

Example: 'Howl, howl, howl!' (From Shakespeare's King Lear)

  • Anaphora: When a word is used at the start of each sentence

Example: 'I have a dream that my four little children... I have a dream that one day... I have a dream today!' (From Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech)

There are several types of repetition a writer or speaker can use to emphasize the importance of their message. Let's take a look at a few famous example of repetition from literature.

Repetition in Literature

The opening lines of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities use repetition to convey a message. This probably contributes to the opening being one of the most popular in all of literature:

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